Thursday, July 15, 2010

Frank Zappa-Hot Rats

Frank Zappa is a cult artist through and through, and anyone even mildly aware of his music either loves or despises him. 70s era music critics sneered at his insistence on being called a composer and at his sometimes orchestral musical pretensions, as well as his bathroom humor. Fans like him for those very reasons, though they would put them in more positive terms. No matter which side you fall on, it would be hard to disagree that Zappa was ahead of his time in many ways, whether it was mocking the hippie counterculture, recording a parody album that was also somewhat reverential of its subject (Cruisin' With Ruben & The Jets set the stage not only for Ween's country album, but also, say, XTC's side project as Dukes Of The Stratosphear), or weaving meta-references to other songs, albums, and characters in his vast discography.

Strangely, even those who dislike Zappa or don't know much about him are drawn to Hot Rats. This's because it reveals two sides to the artist that aren't much discussed: Zappa's underrated guitar playing as well as his gift for picking talented musicians to work with. He may never get his due as guitarist since he has that Steve Vai problem where the only people who like him and respect his guitar playing are either armchair guitarists or professionals in their own right. Hell, Steve Vai got his start transcribing Zappa's guitar solos! Anyway, Zappa is neither a flashy nor a coldly intellectual guitar player, and his performances on 'Willie The Pimp' and especially 'Son Of Mr. Green Genes' are restless in their searching complexity and seemingly bottomless well of ideas. If you've ever wanted to listen to extended guitar solos that end up sounding composed because they lack the repetitive “I'm just playing the chorus of the song as a solo” riffs or noodly aimlessness of 99% of the hacks out there, then Zappa is your man, and Hot Rats is definitely the place to start. Sure, his Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar albums are technically better as Zappa soloing goodness, but they're like jumping straight to whiskey when you haven't even tried beer yet. But I digress. Those who only think of Zappa as the pop music prankster behind songs about yellow snow, groupies, and Valley Girl-speak as well as ridiculously, almost unlistenably complex songs will be continually surprised at his improvisational skills and those of the other players on Hot Rats.

As an almost entirely instrumental work, this album is often labelled as jazz-rock or fusion, though this a strange parallel of similar music Miles Davis was concurrently playing around 1969. Some of this is due to the strange recording techniques Zappa made use of, such as tape speed manipulation and sound processing, which give the album its whimsical and playful sounding instrumentation. 'Peaches En Regalia' is most representative of this, since the keyboards and guitars sound almost toy-like in a MIDI sort of way. But mostly the unique-ness of Hot Rats is thanks to the personnel involved, including longtime Zappa sideman Ian Underwood (who turns in a towering sax solo on the epic 'The Gumbo Variations'), Captain Beefheart's trademark raspy vocals on 'Willie The Pimp', and, most crucially, the violinists Jean Luc Ponty and Don 'Sugarcane' Harris. Jazz fusion had made use of electric guitars, saxophones, violins, and keyboards before, but the eclectic context of these songs and the personalities of the performers give Hot Rats a special feel and texture, one that was never captured again even on similar Zappa albums like Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. While it's true that most of Zappa's gifted collaborators and band members never went on to do much without him, there is still something to said for the way he could collect talent and turn it loose on sympathetic musical material.

Hot Rats may be the only Zappa album most people care about, but there's no shame in that. Most cult bands have an album or two that the rest of the world latches onto, and usually for very good reasons. So while you may not have the time or patience to collect everything Zappa released, or, say, listen to every live tape of the Grateful Dead, you can still legitimately enjoy Hot Rats as a unique instrumental rock album just as you can sing along to American Beauty.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

No comments: